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Kyoto Heritage Buildings

There’s an ongoing movement to refurbish traditional buildings in the historic city, bringing a little bit of former glory back to aging townhouses. By Christopher Kucway.

Published on May 25, 2015


Retired but not retiring, Shigeru Yamamoto lights up when speaking of machiya, the traditional town houses of Kyoto. A master carpenter by trade, he uses a telescopic pointer to conduct his animated tours of an old quarter of the historic city—one that, in bits and pieces, he has helped restore.

Machiya are based on a traditional style of design that uses no diagonal lines. Instead, these structures are constructed using intricate joinery that sways rather than shatters during earthquakes. During the eighth century, lattice frameworks were the norm. "The best way to see Kyoto," Yamamoto tells me, "is to go into the lanes of the old city and see how people live."

The garden remains a serene focal point.
The garden remains a serene focal point.

After World War II, as part of the nation's drive toward modernization, building these wooden houses was prohibited. Today, though, restoring machiya and preserving their classic architectural tenets is the ultimate aim. Deepest Kyoto Tours (—an offshoot of the Kyoto Center for Community Collaboration, a T+L Global Vision Award winner last year—offers walking visits of the narrow streets that best reflect old Kyoto. Typically, each structure included a daidokoro (living room), tooriniwa (passage garden) and zashiki (a parlor for receiving guests). The interiors are peppered with small, detailed touches; doors, windows and room dividers all follow a traditional design.

To the casual observer, a stroll through these lanes turns up nondescript private façades. Yet through the carpenter's eyes, a threestory theater dating to 1925 is actually a geisha house, harkening back to a time when the street was more red light than residential. Those ornate Chinese façades from a century ago, Yamamoto shrugs as we continue around a corner, are victim of a poor restoration job. We enter a revamped traditional doll shop where he points out that the area inside is measured by tatami mats. Next, it's on to Kikoku-So Inn (, a rebuilt machiya that offers visitors a rare chance to stay in one of five rooms that awaken a little bit of Kyoto's past. There's a beautiful tooriniwa here and the local meals are some of the best in town, a perfect introduction to Kyoto as it once was.


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Inside a machiya that has been turned into a high-end, traditional guesthouse.
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